Harrowing Of Hell
February 17, 2021

The Bright Sadness of Lent

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I awoke Friday night and there was a brightness in our bedroom. Having grown up in Minnesota I realized quickly that it snowed out. Snow on the ground makes everything bright. As a child I used to love that, since a big snow fall, even in Minnesota, sometimes meant that school was canceled. Certainly, here in Seattle it would mean school would be canceled, were these normal times. But these are not normal times. School will carry on via Zoom. Work will carry on via Zoom.

And so, while there is a brightness radiating throughout our city with new fallen snow, there’s a sadness as well. The idea of staying home, and snuggling in to wait out the bad weather, which in former days seemed an unexpected gift, in these days of COVID, is just another day in quarantine, plus shoveling sidewalks.

Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. The word “Lent” is an old Anglo-Saxon word for “spring,” and, at its most basic level, marks for Christians the traditional fast of forty days leading up to Easter.

The first mention of this forty day fast from eating was found in the Canons of Nicaea, in 325AD. The custom may have originated in the prescribed fast of candidates for Baptism, which was taken from the biblical texts of the fasts of Moses and Elijah and especially the forty days of fasting in the wilderness that marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

There are many ways to fast, but what is similar in all fasts is the reduction of the consumption of food. I didn’t say complete abstinence, I said reduction of the amount of food you eat. Fasting is about your will establishing its rightful place of dominion over your body. The fast provokes your body to cry out, literally, to which the will can respond, “You will be OK.” The fast is designed to reset the ontological order of a person, re-establishing, if need be, the will as the master of our being.

Part of this re-establishing of our ontological order is made apparent in the fast through the clarity of mind experienced. For those of you who have participated in fasts, you may know what I am talking about. In my experience the mind becomes less foggy during the fast, as precision of thought becomes more acute. There is, in fact, a brightness surrounding this experience, literally in feeling more bright of mind. That said, as I said before, and as so many of you practitioners know, there is also some suffering associated with a fast. The body rebels, as the stomach rumbles and the mood stands ready to be curt and grumpy.

And so, as with a snow day in the midst of a COVID quarantine, there is a bright sadness rolled up in body and mind that come together and settle upon us who participate in the Lenten fast. As many of you know, fasting is a regular part of my life, that becomes even more rigorous during Lent. What I experience in the fast is that it reveals an opportunity, and invitation, if you will, to practice grace and mercy and patience. triggered by the suffering of not eating. What I mean by that is that by intentionally acknowledging the body’s impulse toward the curt and the grumpy, gives me an opportunity to intentionally forsake these impulses, this tyranny, and choose, instead, to practice grace and mercy and patience.

A regular practice of fasting will reveal to you that the grousing of the stomach becomes the clarion call to act more intentionally with grace and mercy and patience. It is in the fast that the sadness of the body dances with the brightness of grace and mercy and patience.

This is how The Book of Common Prayer describes the invitation to Lent through the service of Ash Wednesday. These are the words you will hear read this evening, but I give them to you now in preparation: “Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism.” and it goes on, concluding with: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance.”

We set up our sanctuary, beginning tonight, to reflect the penitential character of Lent. The cross is shrouded in purple. Our vestments are purple, like the cloak thrown over Jesus’ shoulders as the Roman soldiers mocked him in the basement of Antonia’s fortress. The Sunday flowers are replaced by bare branches and sticks. The music is quieter and more somber, and the Alleluias and the Gloria have been omitted. The quiet, stark nature of the space, and the words, and the music is symbolic of a house cleaned and straightened of the clutter; an outward and visible sign of the fast we are undertaking.          

There is a brightness to our space, cleaned and cleared, and yet also a sadness, if you will, at the absence of the glorious mess of stuff that adorns, and some might say, piles up, in this sanctuary. The cleaning of the sanctuary is how we liturgically live out the practice many Christians have participated in for 1,000 years.

The day before Ash Wednesday came to be known as Shrove Tuesday.  Shrove is the past tense for shrive, which is the verb meaning “to go to confession and be absolved of your sins.” In the past few centuries Shrove Tuesday has turned into a feast day, as people, in preparation for Lent, cleaned out their cupboards and ate all the food that they would be forbidden to eat during the Lenten fast… things like sugar, and leavened flour, and eggs; and maybe even bacon, a good excuse to have breakfast for dinner! This meal, though full of joy and bright festivity happens under the sad shadow of Lenten deprivation.

And so, this sanctuary, too, is cleaned and swept, to be a place where our worship space reflects our Lenten fast. And yet, even in this space cleaned and cleared of clutter, the windows surrounding us become brighter and brighter, with the Lenten spring, as its name promises, unfolds the longer and longer days. Even with the stark sadness of Lent the brightness of creation streams into this sacred space.

Some of you are experiencing this Ash Wednesday service here in this sanctuary, and some of you are experiencing it online from your home. As Lent unfolds this year, and you consider your life outside the quarantine of your home, as you consider how you are going to re-own the reality that you are a needed, necessary, and an integral part of society, I pray a part of that consideration includes how you return to in-person worship at Epiphany.

When you do arrive back here and sit in the pews, and feel the rumble of the organ, and stand, and kneel, and say the prayers, your soul will brighten, because worship is the communal dance of souls in the presence of God; And yet, there will be sadness as well. There will be masks worn and social distancing observed. The peace will be exchanged with waves, not hugs and handshakes. And this reality, will, for a time, be a reminder of the bright sadness of this season.

The Orthodox scholar and Bishop, Alexander Schmemann, wrote: “Even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism. Therefore, Easter is our return every year to our own Baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return – the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own “passage” or “pascha” into the new life in Christ. A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see – far, far away – the destination. It is the joy of Easter; it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom {of God}. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our Lenten effort a spiritual Spring. The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn shines on the horizon.”

Lent is our season to let the bright sadness that surrounds us stream toward the mysterious and radiant dawn of Easter. The resurrection is on the horizon and beckons us, as it moves slowly toward us. And so, I invite you to come to this stark sanctuary and consider the changing light. Search the catacombs of your heart in remembrance of your baptism and the vows you made or were made for you. Walk the pilgrimage of Lent, step by step, watching for and waiting for God.  Let your stomach grumble, and with each utterance accept the invitation to be more and more a person of grace and mercy and patience. And when it snows, and it always snows in Lent as a protest to Spring, as a protest to resurrection, let the bright sadness of the season, punctuated particularly by this time of COVID, be an invitation to set your ontological being in order and lay bare your soul to God.